The big issues affecting Britain’s position in the world were relations with Europe and the developments in the Cold War. Not until 1988 were there any serious doubts about Britain’s place ‘at the heart of Europe’. Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States was strengthened by the Thatcher-Reagan partnership that dominated the attitudes and policies of the West from 1981 to 1989.
In these years, there were climactic developments in the Cold War: first, the hard-line confrontations of the so-called ‘New Cold War’, and then the remarkable transformation brought about by the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev.
Empire and commonwealth, 1975-90
The problem of Rhodesia had bedevilled British foreign policy since 1965. By 1979, however, changing circumstances had deprived Smith of the support from Portugal and South Africa he had previously been ale to rely on. Mrs Thatcher’s foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, had the patience and diplomatic skills to bring about a final settlement.
After tortuous negotiations at the Lancaster House conference in London in 1980, Smith was forced to accept defeat. The way was opened for black majority rule in an independent Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, led by the nationalist Robert Mugabe.
The issue of what to do about the apartheid regime in South Africa caused many rows in the Commonwealth, and Thatcher was frequently accused of failing to put enough pressure on South Africa.
The Falkland Islands had been a British colony and naval base since 1833. By the 1970s, the Falkland islands no longer had much strategic importance. The colony was an isolated remnant of empire. From 1971, the only air link to the islands was run by an Argentine airline; Argentina also supplied the Falklands’ energy needs. Foreign office officials were prepared to negotiate with Argentina over the future of the islands: the islanders themselves were keen to remain British.
In 1981, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, and the Defence Secretary, John Nott, approved the withdrawal of HMS Endurance, leaving the South Atlantic without any British naval presence. The junta in power in Argentina since 1976, took this an a hint that Britain was willing to let the Falkland islands go. Seeking popularity in the middle of an economic crisis, the leader of the junta, General Galtieri, sent an invasion force to occupy the Falklands, claiming Argentine sovereignty.
Thatcher’s response was the immediate announcement that a naval task force would be sent to remove the Argentine forces and assert the right of the Falkland Islanders to self-determination. Seen in hindsight, this decision was the making of Mrs Thatcher, sending her previously unpopular government soaring in the opinion polls. However, it could have ended in a disaster of Suez proportions. Rolling television coverage showed huge and enthusiastic crowds giving the fleet an emotional send-off from Portsmouth harbour.
Upon the sinking of the Argentine battleship, General Belgrano, The Sun’s headline was ‘GOTCHA!’ Many applauded the action but many anti-war protestors claimed that the sinking of the retreating battleship which caused heavy loss of life had been unnecessary and was designed to finish off the chances of a peaceful outcome. Efforts were made to get Argentina to accept UN resolution 502 and pull her troops back.
The other diplomatic urgency was to get assurances from the United States. It was impossible to fight battles 8,000 miles from home without the use of American bases like Ascension Island. The Falklands War strengthened the special relationship and the personal ties between Thatcher and Reagan. American diplomatic intervention was crucial in preventing the Argentine forces from obtaining more missiles as their Exocets were very effective, as shown by the destruction of the HMS Sheffield. Once the landings were secured, victory was certain and the Argentine forces surrendered on 14 June.
Victory in the Falklands boosted Thatcher in domestic policies. Thatcher’s critics muttered that Britain would sooner or late end up negotiating a deal with Argentina over the Falklands anyway and criticised the point of the war. On the other hand, the psychological impact was important. In the 1970s, Britain’s international position had seemed to be in miserable decline; now there was a resurgence of national pride in Britain, comparable with the success President Reagan had had in restoring self-belief to the United States after the trauma of Vietnam. Not everyone in Britain was filled with national pride. Some objected to the gloating of the tabloids and what they saw as Thatcher’s triumph in celebrating victory as if it was the Second World War all over again; and in bashing the BBC and the Archbishop of Canterbury for being ‘wet’. It has also been suggested the nationalistic mood fostered by the Falklands victory indirectly weakened links to Europe.
In the wider context, the Falklands War made it even less likely that Britain would force the people of Gibraltar to accept being handed to Spain. It did not stop the continued tidying up of Britain’s imperial legacy. Lengthy negotiations with China laid the foundations for the eventual handover of Hong Kong scheduled for 1997. Diplomatic relations with Argentina reopened in 1989.
By 1990, Britain’s relationship with the EEC was still unsettled. Thatcher’s personality and political style ruffled the consensual politics favoured by other European leaders. In the late 1980s, especially in a forthright speech at Bruges in 1988, Thatcher was increasingly reluctant to see further moves towards political integration. The circumstances of Thatcher’s fall from power intensified doubts about Britain’s place in Europe.
Thatcher’s first priority in Europe was to secure a better deal for Britain over financial contributions to the EEC. Britain was paying in much more to the EEC than was being retuned in benefits. Thatcher’s persistent campaign for Britain to be given a rebate eventually achieved success in 1984. It played well to her supporters at home but irritated her European partners. Despite this, Britain’s relations with Europe were generally good. Thatcher was enthusiastic about the Single European Market when it was negotiated in 1985-86.
Thatcher established a good working relationship with the French president, Francois Mitterrand. They cooperated closely over the complexities of the Channel Tunnel project which was agreed in 1986 and opened up in 1994.
Most of her cabinet ministers were strongly pro-Europe. Thatcher was enthusiastically in favour of expanding the EEC to include the new states in Eastern Europe (though her main motive here was the idea that this would weaken the power of the European Commission in Brussels).
The turning point was a speech made in Brussels in 1988, setting out the Thatcher vision of the future of Europe which raised doubts about Britain’s commitment to further European integration. This was highlighted by the words, ‘what people wish to do in their own countries is a matter for them’. The main thrust of Thatcher’s Bruges speech was to emphasise that the EEC was a trade association between sovereign states. She was resolutely opposed to federalism and the idea of ‘ever closer political union’. There were indeed elements of the European Commission, including its president, Jacques Delors, who thought that was precisely the direction in which the EEC should be going.
Thatcher’s more negative line on Europe caused tension within her government. People like Geoffrey Howe and John Major thought she was backtracking from positions she had agreed to since 1985. On the other hand, Eurosceptics such as the Bruges group argued that it was the federalists in Brussels who were changing the EEC into something different from the Common Market that Britain had joined in 1973. Thatcher was never openly anti-European before she left office; that was something that developed later. Thatcher’s rather anti-German view of European history and her tendency to point out too often how it had twice been necessary for Europe to be rescued from German domination by the Anglo-American alliance. As the prospect of German unification came closer from 1988 onwards, Thatcher’s fears of a united Germany dominating Europe intensified.
Thatcher’s contribution to ending the Cold War rested on two pillars: her combative style and determination to confront the USSR in the early 1980s, and her willingness to negotiate with the new reformist Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Above all, Thatcher’s foreign policy was founded on reviving the special relationship with the United Stated. In the 1970s, relations were strained because the Americans felt Britain failed to provide enough active support either in Vietnam or in the Middle East crisis of 1973, when the Heath government was reluctant to help American support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War. The mood changed from the moment of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration as president in January 1981.
In 1983, there was a major war scare over NATO military exercises in the North Atlantic. Then Soviet jets shot down a Korean passenger airliner, KAL 007, when it strayed off course into Soviet airspace; everyone on board was killed. Cruise missiles were stationed in Europe. The Reagan administration steeped up plans for its ‘Star Wars’ anti-missile shield. All this caused serious tensions between the Soviet Bloc and the West. It has been suggested that the outcome of the Cold War was ultimately decided by this Western firmness, especially by the high levels of defence spending that the USSR simply could not manage. If so, Thatcher must be credited with an important contribution.
Another view is that it was not military pressure from the West that ended the Cold War but Mikhail Gorbachev. Thatcher can claim some credit for this, too. Gorbachev established his authority between 1985-87. He was a realist who knew things could not go on as they were. His favourite saying as he promoted reform of the USSR was: ‘If not us, who? If not now, when?’ Gorbachev made a remarkable impression on the hard-line conservatives, Thatcher and Reagan. Thatcher even claimed, ‘I like Mr Gorbachev’ and ‘he and I can do business together’.